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For the love of the game

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Aussie Rules defender Courtney Cramey knows what it’s like to be denied playing the sport you love. Now, thanks to the AFL and BHP, she also knows what its like to be given a shot at the big time.

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Crows AFLW player Courtney Cramey at Norwood oval for training. Picture: Russell Millard

F

ollowing a passion through thick and thin is something Courtney Cramey understands – she’s done it all her life.

The Adelaide Crows AFLW defender, 33, has loved football since she first punted a Sherrin and watched on at Sturt games as a kid.

“My first football memory would probably be at Unley Oval watching Sturt Football Club play when my dad was involved in the club and my brother played there,” Cramey says. “I’d be hanging around training of a week night … kicking the footy into footy bins.”

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As a primary school student, she could also pursue her chosen sport on the field, lining up with the boys to wage Aussie rules battle every weekend.

But, as for other girls her age, chasing her sporting dream suffered a devastating blow in secondary school when the boy’s-only rule saw her benched.

“To not be included in something that you’re passionate about and be excluded was hard,” she says. “I had to work through that pretty quickly and try and find another love and passion, which ended up being basketball for many years. But footy was always my passion and it was hard not being able to play it.”

Cramey meanwhile found any way possible to stay involved in her beloved sport, taking on umpiring and coaching gigs to stay in touch, until many years later, the wheel turned full circle and AFL chief executive officer Gillon McLachlan proposed an AFL Women’s competition.

Ambition bloomed again for the then 30-year-old: “I thought it was in my time frame to potentially be involved and worked really hard in the lead up to that to give myself the best opportunity to be involved.”

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Adelaide Crows General Manager of Football Operations Phil Harper. Picture: Russell Millard

Phil Harper, the Crows’ general manager of football operations, was charged with putting in a bid for an Adelaide FC women’s team in concert with the Northern Territory.

“We did that and we had great help from the Darwin connection and then won the first premiership, so it was pretty cool,” Harper says.

The women’s team opened up new fields for sponsorship for the Crows, attracting BHP as a major backer for the first time after years of courting the Big Australian.

“I headed up our commercial department for eight years and I tried to get BHP as a sponsor,” he says. “I’ve been here for 21 years in a male-dominated industry and they’ve been there for a lot longer than me in a male-dominated industry.

“The reason they were able to do this is because our strategies and philosophies are aligned on trying to get some gender diversity in our programs. We thought we could work together on that, so it’s been a win-win and I’m so pleased to see BHP come on board.”

The success of the competition has also been a revelation to many. The first Crows AFLW game attracted nearly 10,000 people to Thebarton Oval and audience numbers have since remained consistently high at an average of 9000. Harper says the SANFL averages only 2500 to 3000 a game.

For Cramey and her compatriots in the rapidly expanding 10-team AFLW competition – four more will join in 2020 – the chance to play professional footy is the answer to many prayers, although sacrifices must still be made. The women remain semi-pro, having to maintain day jobs before heading to training sessions afterhours, sweating it out under the summer sun pre-season and in fixtures from February 2 to March 16 leading up to the finals.

On this blistering day in January, Cramey, who has a thigh injury, is training with the squad in 40-degree heat as a furnace-like wind swirls around Norwood Oval.

But the women seem inured to the extremes, as do the young fans who have gathered at the boundary line to watch their heroes go through their paces.

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An Adelaide Crows AFLW team member signs autographs for young fans at Norwood Oval. Picture: Russell Millard

NEW PATHWAYS

Thanks to the advent of the senior women’s competition, a multitude of pathways are opening up for girls with footy in their hearts.

Such is the case for the girls enrolled at the Roxby Junior Sports Academy, who were able to visit the Crows AFLW sanctum last year. “It was just a massive eye-opener for them,” says Jess Telfer, 32, high-performance coach at the academy.

“They were able to do a training session with and then meet the players and learn a bit about the nutrition and dietetics. It was great.”

The trip was paid for by BHP, which is also the major sponsor of the Roxby academy, first set up as a pilot scheme in 2018. This year, the academy will work with eight girls and eight boys aged 12 to 16 years – all aspiring young sportspeople living in Roxby Downs nextdoor to BHP’s giant Olympic Dam mine.

“It’s a holistic approach in terms of sport,” Telfer says. “They do gym strength and conditioning twice a week – we meet before school. Probably the biggest emphasis they’ve got is on the extra things like nutrition, psychology, emotional wellbeing. We do separate clinics with that. We even did a media training session with them because that’s such a huge part of sport these days.

“While we keep in mind their specific sport, and some of them are quite focused, we have had Elise Turtur who’s gone from dancing and (is now) looking at a role in rugby after her testing, so there is that change in pathways they are able to do.”

Telfer says the rewards from the academy are already showing themselves, with several of last year’s teens selected by senior sporting clubs and a ripple effect in the town and beyond.

“I have enjoyed seeing the implications it’s had on their local level teams,” the coach says. “They’ve become leaders because of it. They really are standing out and helping younger athletes develop in their own areas. We have these 10-year-olds looking up to these academy kids and have a bit of aspiration themselves.”

As to pathways into footy, the Crows – like many AFL clubs – have begun recruiting girls into its Academy programs. Harper says boys and girls aged 14 to 18 years are the focus but, with the new father/daughter rule, girls as young as five are being made to feel a part of the club.

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The Adelaide Crows AFLW team at training at Norwood Oval. Picture: Russell Millard

INTO THE FUTURE

Cramey says that feeling of inclusion is key to the future of women’s football: “The first season of AFLW, it was the first time girls had been in an elite, high-performance environment so it was very new to all of us.

“Just having access to the coaches and the facilities was something new. So it was definitely an eye-opener and I think, over the past couple of years, we’ve definitely built on that and become accustomed to feeling like we belong in that environment now.”

BHP’s sponsorship has also seen players, including Cramey, work throughout South Australia and the Northern Territory to increase the awareness of women in footy.

“We’ve got out to Whyalla and Andamooka and Port Augusta and all those regional areas and assisted the community and conducted programs within grassroots,” she says.

“So it’s not just about the elite level … but also our contribution to the community and how we can work together.”

Through it all, her love of the sport and being a member of a team shines through: “There’s not many other sports other than football where you have that many teammates, so it’s brilliant.”

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